Ximena Sariñana: Fame, Unmonstered

Music Features Ximena Sariñana
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Ximena Sariñana displays that complex leavening of assurance and humility of one who’s experienced a certain amount of acclaim. Complex gears turn quickly behind her eyes even as she talks conversationally, and she embraces the first person with unabashed ease. She is, you see, a movie and pop star, but not here.

Beyond having her first album Mediocre go platinum in Mexico, beyond winning a critical award for Best Female Actress for her role in Dos abrazos, she grew up starring in telenovelas, the ubiquitous Mexican soaps whose viewership extends not only throughout Latin America, but even to a confusingly breathless, committed audience in Eastern Europe. “About 15 years back, Mexican film really started to be an industry,” Sariñana admits, “but soap operas, that’s the real connection with the people.” In context, acting for telenovelas in Mexico seems to be somewhere on the fame scale between being the Super Bowl MVP and being Madonna. “People have pretty much seen me grow up,” she acknowledges.

And yet, in this moment at least, Sariñana is an undersung denizen of the glitz-adjacent Studio City neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley. She’s about to release her first English-language album on the American wing of Warner Brothers Records. She has, for all intents and purposes, begun to rewrite her story on a neighboring but otherwise blank slate.

“Even though I had a name and a platinum-selling record in Mexico or whatever, coming here you start from scratch basically,” says Ximena (pronounced “H-imena”). “It was like having to prove myself all over again to everybody… Suddenly I found myself working in a different country where nobody knew who I was, barely even knew how to pronounce my name.”

But clearly a degree of earnest fearlessness is more than somewhat ingrained in her. “That’s how my life has been always. When I was 20 years old and I got a record deal to do Mediocre, people were asking me, ‘What are you going to do with your acting career? Is that done?’ I was like, ‘I don’t have a plan. I’m just going to do what I like.’ Because that’s always been my approach to my ‘career,’ and I never really thought of it as a ‘career’ until maybe now.”

Primed but not overexposed by her success in Mexico, Sariñana seems to have moved forward with both workmanlike focus and child-like spontaneity, a rare commodity in a moment where many try disproportionately hard to be noticed by even a few.

For its part, her self-titled pseudo-debut is refreshingly stripped of trappings, its songs leaning forward with a certain synthetic but still warm urgency, as her fluid-but-unelaborated vocals slide across layers of keyboards and crystalline guitar on standouts like “Shine Down” and “Different.” It’s a rare record that partakes in both the electronic fringes of indie rock and the pop swathe of girl-on-a-stool singer/songwriter-ism, and luminaries such as Greg Kurstin (The Bird and the Bee), Dave Sitek (TV On the Radio) and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (Mars Volta) subtly dot its musical landscape. “In Mexico, I was in that complicated line of pop and alternative and people never knew where to put me… I’ve always liked that,” says Sarinana. Having toured with Sara Bareilles and Elizabeth and the Catapult and currently out with Sia and Oh Land in addition to slots of the Lollapalooza and Outside Lands bills, she’s navigating a musical traverse that feels increasingly vital, and at least a certain measure of success seems inevitable, particularly since she’s hard not to like.

In person, Sariñana is prone to self-effacing humor, a tone subtly channeled on the track “Echo Park,” which, for those not-versed in Los Angeles social geography, could have easily been renamed Williamsburg or maybe even Portland. “It’s definitely making fun of [scenesters], but I also put myself in that category,” says Ximena. “As much as I want to be ‘no I’m not a hipster,’ we all go through our little ‘I want to fall in love with a guy where, you know, he plays guitar and likes weird movies and is into art and dresses kinda funky and has big glasses.’ This is making fun of that superficial part of everybody,” she laughs, as we chuckle at the patterns of arty inclusion in the coy spots of a guileless town. “I went to see Dead Man’s Bones at a concert hall somewhere around Echo Park or something, and it was so funny because there was this humongous line but 95 percent of people there were girls between the ages of 20 and 25. No guys. All dressed up in their indie-but-cute outfits. I went with a friend of mine—also a girl—and we got there and we’re like ‘we just fit right into the pile.’ I mean, sure, I can’t deny that he’s like super-hot and amazingly talented, but it was just very funny that we fell into the Ryan Gosling fan [profile].”

As light and breezy as both Sarinana and her music can be, woven through it all is the artistry of someone for whom both acting and music are less of a celebrity exercise and more a form of experimentation and expression, the arranged but barely filtered outpourings of a girl who makes weekly visits to record stores, avidly listens to obscure musical peers and has grown comfortable in a limelight where she actually seems to belong on her own terms.